It’s a Circus Out There, But Not For Long


(Previously published in “AndSociety”, January 22, 2017.)

GEEZE… what happened! On Friday I hear that Ringling Brothers Circus has its first female ringmaster in its 146-year history. I’m thinking, “Well, isn’t that interesting? The news has been completely dominated by the changes that come with the Trump election, but there are a lot of other changes happening out there!” And then on Saturday, I see that the Circus will close in May.

At first, I thought that it must have been some other Circus. Sure enough, the Big Apple Circus, a 40-year-old Circus, had declared bankruptcy and was auctioning off its assets in February. The Big Apple Circus is a very big deal. Ringling is the biggest Circus in the world, but Big Apple is very important and well known. OK. Mystery solved! But then I hear it again, “Ringling Brothers to Close!”     

Look, in a hundred years when they look back on the 21st century I doubt that anyone is going to say, “Ah, that was the golden age of the Circus”,  but still. The circus is gone? Last year Ringling gave up its elephants. That was the last straw (do they still use straw?). We still have Cirque Du Soleil, from Canada. And the Blue Man Group. Both of these got started in the last couple of decades of the 20th Century, as “modern” alternatives to the traditional circus. So they still have a few productive years left.

Without the circus, where do parents bring their kids for that once in a lifetime experience with a big animal? Sea world? Not so much. Orcas or dolphins are being phased out in SeaWorld and similar entertainment parks. That just leaves Zoos and aquariums. Without a direct profit motive, and with sponsorship from conservation groups, these are generally the best-managed places to see big animals. Yet, even these organizations are under increasing pressure from animal rights groups to return big animals (and fish) to the wild.

Ringling Brothers has a pretty straightforward view about animal protection groups. Ringling says that once they announced that they were retiring their Elephants, ticket sales went through the floor and was the primary reason for the closure. At Seaworld, it’s harder to say if they will survive without Orcas and Dolphins. Zoos? They are terrified of the next time that they need to put down an animal because a guest wandered into a Gorilla enclosure or precipitated a lion attack.

Some of the world’s biggest animals are in danger of extinction. I knew that. So did you. But did either of us know that when big animals faded away that the circuses and marine parks that displayed them we go first? Sure, we still have the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, endless documentaries, Indie films and YouTube mini-films. But without the ability to see, maybe touch, definitely smell (whoa-yep, definitely smell) these wonders of the wild, do we still care if they are are still alive anywhere at all?

I could also do without creepy clowns, but what happens to the art of clowning? Trapeze, and jugglers and a multitude of other skills, some of which go back thousands of years, may fade away… when the last circus closes. It is the 21st Century, and the Circus in America is mostly a 19th Century art form that managed… just barely… to survive the 20th Century.   

It’s ironic that at the end of this week we will have the inauguration of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. Will it be the start of a new age or the end of an old one? Circuses, Elephants, and Lions may not be part of this new American age, but maybe… just maybe… the animal rights people are right and this is the best way to have the animals is to get rid of these institutions. In any case, we’re about to find out!

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